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Jun 142011

“Globbit!” Foozle said. “He’s the zoobiest froog that ever weebled!”

Yes, it’s awful. Why, oh why, do we keep doing it?

Today’s post is brought to you by the delightfully foul-mouthed (and really rather good) The Lies of Locke Lamora. We’ll look at four-letter words, and why we fucking love them.

There’s something refreshing about swearing. It brings back all those wonderful memories of childhood, of spending a hot summer’s day with your back to a tree, watching people go by and calling them names.

But it’s kind of divisive. I think those of us whose formative experiences involved Ahnold flicks forget, sometimes, that not everybody gives the thumbs-up to a string of expletives. Not everybody watched The Sopranos, or listened to that there devil music. Which is unfortunate.

Pop quiz: You’ve stubbed your toe on a wall.

a) That hurts!
b) Oh, dear. Martha, I do think I may need a hand up here.
c) Augh, fucking goddamn fuck!

The correct answer is c).

We love to swear. We swear when we’re surprised or hurt by something. We swear as a sort of semantic exclamation point. We swear at things that are bad, and we swear at things that are fucking grand. And we do it a lot.

There are several good reasons to incorporate swearing into writing, but the biggest of them is that it’s just natural. If we cuss at some asshole dinging us in a parking lot and driving off, I’m reasonably comfortable that we’ll also cuss at orcs putting axes into our shoulders.

Swearing is also a handy voice marker and characterization tool. It can mark class, and it can hint at emotion. Our pirate may run off at the mouth constantly. Pirates do that sort of thing, in between ‘Arrr’s. Of course, his prim captive doesn’t approve. When she finally brings herself to swear at him a few hundred pages in, we know she means business, and we’re not too surprised to see the bodices start a-ripping.

How, then, do we incorporate it?

Well, it’s pretty fucking easy, innit? We’ve all had plenty of practice.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, fantasy writers choose to forego the shits and bitches of the world for swearing of their own creation. Perhaps they’ve adopted an archaic tone and feel that modern swearing interferes with it. Perhaps they’re writing for children.

Trouble is, it’s really jarring if you get it wrong.

Linguist Steven Pinker has a lot to say about why swearing is used and how its various categories shape up. The relevant bits start at roughly minute 12 and run about 20 minutes, but I recommend that you find an hour to watch the whole talk, because it’s really good.

The short version: Swearing breaks down into five main categories.

1) The supernatural. Damn, hell, anything that comes out of a Montreal mouth.
2) Bodily effluvia and organs. Shit, asshole, etc.
3) Disease, death and infirmity. A pox on thee!
4) Sexuality. Fuck, cock, cunt.
5) Disfavoured people and groups. Racial slurs, etc.

And it’s used in five ways.

1) Dysphemistic swearing. Eschewing a euphemism specifically because we want to draw attention to how awful a thing is. I.e. you wouldn’t say “Oh dear, somebody appears to have pooped all over my lamp.”
2) Abusive swearing. To intimidate or humiliate the listener.
3) Idiomatic swearing. Shit out of luck, what the fuck?
4) Emphatic swearing. That’s fucking grand, that is!
5) Cathartic swearing. The stubbed toe above.

Now, this is all very much in the background. Swearing is pretty natural, and we all *think* we know how to do it.

Oh yeah, tough guy? Explain frell.

If you’ve ever watched Farscape (editor’s note: nope, B5 was the wrong dimly remembered sci-fi series), you may have been exposed to the very strange phenomenon of people using the word ‘frell’ when they ought to be swearing. Now, the blame here lies with puritanical TV censors and not the writers necessarily, but frell? Golly gee! I’m going to fudge those fluffernutters up for this!

It’s horrible. If you’re going to devise a swearing-equivalent word, please make sure it doesn’t sound like a euphemism we teach to five-year-olds. Grown-ass adults don’t call each other ‘poopieheads’.

Battlestar Galactica’s frack, on the other hand, is much better, mostly by dint of sounding almost exactly like ‘fuck’, and having those same wonderful I-mean-business fricatives going on.

Also in the sounds-like-swearing camp, Firefly‘s rutting. It’s not nearly as good. But what’s interesting about Firefly is that it proposes a setting in which many characters lapse into Chinese when they’re angry, in what I assume is an amusing sort of end-run around TV obscenity statutes. Maybe, if we’re lucky, Joss Whedon’s next project will do the same for our delightful Quebecois friends. I would definitely pay some money to see Gina Torres or Nathan Fillion ostieing de criss de tabarnak.

Of course, even the suggestion of real swearing can be too much for well-meaning parents labouring under the delusion that their children don’t cuss like sailors the moment they’re out of earshot. YA can get away with a lot, because teenagers tend to have some income of their own and are notoriously foul-mouthed, but writing for younger readers can’t (and, in all fairness, probably shouldn’t).

And yet, Harry Potter brings us a truly excellent made-up swear in mudblood. In the Potterverse, there’s a strong cultural tension between wizards from pure families, and those with only one wizardly parent or none – i.e. mudbloods. It’s an excellent image, it rolls off the tongue, and it evokes very real racist terminology (those unfortunate enough to be aware of the idiotverse of white supremacy may have heard the term ‘mud races’ before). When Hermione has it thrown in her face, her reaction and the reactions of her friends are very true to the racial slur taboo line being crossed.

Swearing is fun, and it’s easy, and there’s really nothing wrong with injecting a bit of modern fuckery into historical fantasy. Frankly, it’s usually less jarring than attempts to make up swearing of your own. But if you absolutely must do the latter, a little preparation is all you need to keep from fudging up.

Next week: We shall see!

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